Is God unfair?  Is God silent?  Is God hidden?

Fire and the Word

Philip Yancey        

More passionately than anyone in history, the prophets of Israel gave voice to the feeling of disappointment with God.

It was an unholy coincidence that many took to be divine retribution. Two weeks ago, canon David Jenkins, 59, who had publicly asserted that neither the Virgin birth nor the Resurrection need be taken too literally, was formally consecrated as Bishop of Durham in York Minster amid cries of protest. Less than three days later, in the early hours of the morning, lightning forked down on the wooden roof of the minster's 13th century south transept. By 2:30 A.M., flames were leaping from the medieval masterpiece that is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.... Jenkins' detractors lost no time in claiming that their views had been vindicated.... a vicar who had been evicted from the minster for voicing protests in the midst of the new bishop's consecration ceremony suggested that "divine intervention" might have caused the fire. Others ... cit[ed] the prophet Elijah, who brought down a fire from heaven, which destroyed an altar he had built in the presence of the prophets of Baal.

Time, July 23, 1984

Philip Yancey

Philip Yancey

The problem with the York Minster lightning bolt, of course, is that it stands as such an exception.  So fire from the heavens hits a famous church — what about all the Unitarian churches that brashly deny orthodox Christian doctrines, not to mention the Muslim mosques and Hindu temples?  Why should David Jenkins provoke divine wrath when the outright blasphemer Bertrand Russell lived unpunished into cranky old age?  If God consistently sent lightning bolts in response to bad doctrine, our planet would sparkle nightly like a Christmas tree.

And yet fire did fall from heaven once, almost thirty centuries ago, and ministers ever since have harkened back to that scene on Mount Carmel.  The story has a mythic, Tolkeinesque quality to it: like Frodo on his mission to Mordor, Elijah journeyed across Israel to a rugged desert mountain to wage war, single-combat style, against 850 false prophets.

Elijah, the wildest and woolliest prophet of Israel, worked the crowd like a master magician.  He doused the site with twelve large jars of water — a most precious commodity after three years of drought.  And just when it seemed Elijah was perpetrating a huge national joke, it happened.  A ball of fire dropped like a meteor from a clear sky.  The heat was so intense it melted the stones and soil, and flames lapped up water from the trenches like fuel.  The crowd dropped to the ground in fear and awe.  "The Lord — he is God!  The Lord — he is God!" they cried.

In a dramatic public showdown, God clobbered the forces of evil.  No wonder the scene looms large in the annals of faith.  No wonder the people of Jesus' day mistook him for Elijah reincarnate.  Even in modern times, when lightning strikes a cathedral, some wistfully recall Mount Carmel.

Yet when I sat in a Colorado cabin and read straight through the Bible, I saw the life of Elijah in a very different light.  He and his miracle-working twin Elisha emerged not as prototypes of the Old Testament prophet, but as stellar exceptions:  few successors had even a trace of their ability to work miracles.  If we yearn for their power, we yearn for the wrong thing.  The signs and wonders of Elijah's day were a blip in history, with no long-term effect on the Israelites.  No wildfire revivals broke out, and after the briefest flurry of religious fervor, the nation settled back into its long, steady slide away from God.  King Ahab, himself a spectator at Mount Carmel, left a legacy as Israel's wickedest king.

Apparently the fireball on Mount Carmel had no lasting impact on Elijah either.  Terrified for his life, the prophet put forty days' distance between himself and Queen Jezebel, Ahab's vengeful consort.  And when God next met with Elijah, he did not appear in a fire, in a great and powerful wind, or in an earthquake.  Rather, he came in a whisper, a thin, small voice almost like silence — a preview of a striking change to come.

The Prophets

It must have been hard to follow the prophet Elijah.  Not long after the showdown on Mount Carmel another prophet, Micaiah, stood before the same king, Ahab, in very similar circumstances.  Elijah-like, he faced down four hundred false prophets and delivered a stinging message from God.  But instead of fire falling from heaven, Micaiah got a slap in the face and a stint in jail.

After Elijah and Elisha, God seemed to rein in His supernatural power, turning from spectacle to word.  Most prophets — Isaiah, Hosea, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel — had no stunning displays of omnipotence to dangle before an audience; they had only the power of words.  And as God seemed to draw farther and farther away, these prophets themselves began to ask questions:  Eloquent questions, haunting questions, questions wrapped in pain.  They voiced aloud the cries of a people who felt abandoned by God.

Disappointment With God

Disappointment With God

I had always misread the prophets — when I bothered to read them at all.  I had seen them as finger-wagging, fusty old men who, like Elijah, called down judgment on the pagans.  I discovered to my surprise that the ancient prophets' writings actually sound the most "modern" of any part of the Bible.  They deal with the very same themes that hang like a cloud over our century:  the silence of God, the seeming sovereignty of evil, the unrelieved suffering in the world.  The prophets' questions are, in fact, the questions of this book:  God's unfairness, silence, hiddenness.

More passionately than anyone in history, the prophets of Israel gave voice to the feeling of disappointment with God.  Why do godless nations flourish? they asked.  Why is there such poverty and depravity in the world?  Why so few miracles?  Where are you, God?  "Why do you always forget us?  Why do you forsake us so long?"  Show yourself; break your silence.  For God's sake, literally, ACT!

There was the urbane voice of Isaiah, an aristocrat and adviser to kings, in personal style as far removed from Elijah as Winston Churchill was from Gandhi.  "Truly you are a God who hides himself," Isaiah said.  "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!"

Jeremiah loudly protested the failure of "success theology."  In his day, prophets were being tossed in dungeons and wells, and even sawed in half.  Jeremiah compared God to a weakling, "a man taken by surprise.... a warrior powerless to save."  Voltaire himself could not have put it better:  How can an all-powerful and all-loving God permit such a messed-up world?

Habakkuk challenged God to explain why, as he put it, "justice never prevails."

How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
  but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, "Violence!"
  but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
  Why do you tolerate wrong?

Like all Israelites, the prophets had been raised on victory stories.  As children they had learned how God freed his people from slavery, descended to live among them, and carried them into the Promised Land.  But now in visions of the future they saw, in slow-motion detail, all those victories being undone.  In a stark reversal of the unforgettable scene from Solomon's day, the prophet Ezekiel watched God's glory rise, hover above the temple for a moment, and then vanish.

What Ezekiel saw in a vision, Jeremiah saw in stark reality.  Babylonian soldiers entered the temple — pagans in the Most Holy Place! — looted it, then burned it to the ground.  (Historians record that as they entered the temple the soldiers swept the empty air with their spears, seeking the unseen Hebrew God.)  Jeremiah wandered the deserted streets of Jerusalem in a state of shock, like a survivor of Hiroshima staggering through the rubble.  Israel's king was now shackled and blinded, the nation's princes slaughtered.  In the final seige, Jerusalem's gentle women had cooked and eaten their own children.

How did it feel to be a prophet then?  Jeremiah tells us:

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
  I mourn, and horror grips me....
Oh, that my head were a spring of water
  and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
  for the slain of my people....
My heart is broken within me;
  All my bones tremble.
I am like a drunken man,
  like a man overcome by wine.

But the most amazing feature of the prophets is not their "modern" outlook or their passionate cry of disappointment.  The reason these seventeen books merit a close look is that they include God's own reply to the prophets' bracing questions.


NEXT:  Wounded Lover


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